I’m old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California. The received wisdom at the time was: How did this second-rate, washed-up actor get elected governor of the biggest state in the country? Fourteen years later a version of this same narrative wondered how he got elected president, except the pejorative “old” was added.
The answers to the Ronald Reagan questions are much more straightforward than the answer to the question: How did Donald Trump get elected president? The political dynamics of the last third of the Twentieth Century had been in play for decades and Reagan was elected in large part as a reaction to the political and social exhaustion of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Few saw Trump’s presidency coming, including yours truly, but the evidence was there and actually in plain sight. Here are just two of many exhibits.
One of my relatives is on social media with people across the political spectrum. Here is an edited extended quote from one of their Christian friends:
I voted for Trump initially because although he has low morals and does/says despicable things Hillary was of very low morals as well (see how she treated victims of sexual assault by her husband as one example). Basically I had to throw morals out the window because I did not see anyone whom I thought was moral. Therefore my decision came down to which candidate supported my core political beliefs [eight of which he lists]. . . I do not look to the president nor any politician for religious guidance. I find that elsewhere in my life. I do wish that Trump and all politicians lived up to higher standards . . . but that is simply not the world we live in.
Here is the key quote, in my view:
I do not condone his behavior. I cannot stand his behavior a lot of the times. He is more or less an empty vessel that gets done what I would like done. And honestly he has been shockingly effective at it.
It is hard to imagine a more transactional view of personal politics.
The other evidence is a recent book by journalist Brian Rosenwald entitled Talk Radio’s America. He makes a compelling case that, beginning with Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s, conservative talk radio and later Fox News engaged and energized what became the Tea Party in 2010 and, more recently, Trump’s base. It was instrumental in purging the Republican Party of moderates. It inflated listeners’ expectations about what was politically achievable, contributing to gridlock and governmental dysfunction. “Republicans created this mess for themselves by cultivating talk radio, lending credibility to hosts during their rise, and shamelessly adopting the bellicose, exaggerated rhetoric and demands hosts pushed. Republicans fed a beast that, over time, destroyed their party.” (261)
And: “Talk radio didn’t just stump for Trump; it created him. From his incendiary rhetoric, to his conspiracy theories, to the pithy nicknames with which he branded enemies, Trump played the role of the hosts he happily chatted with and whose style he appropriated.” (248) As he does to this day.
There are many factors that explain the Trump phenomenon, but the pass given by Evangelicals and political environment created by conservative talk radio and Fox News are right up there.
Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.